Saturday, September 26, 2015

Streets are the Commons

Recently I was invited to watch a TED Talk by a passionate social reformer. She spoke first about "changing and controlling the narrative."

I propose a new narrative for transportation planning: Streets are the Commons.

Searching for some local indicators of passionate concern for protecting children on streets, I came across this recent article which reminded me of the process of education that was contrived when cars first invaded cities a century ago.* Here we are in the 21st century with incredible technology at our fingertips and urban transportation officials are still designing policies which ignore the laws of physics** and instead depend upon clever advertising to educate thoughtless drivers, to compensate for their inability to design a transportation system that is intrinsically safe:
Will “Little Nudges” Slow Drivers Down to New NYC Speed Limit?

"... an ambitious campaign to reduce the city’s 4,000 annual pedestrian injuries and 250 deaths through citywide strategies that include stricter enforcement and safer design...

“It really emphasizes the vulnerability of the human body to vehicles,” Williams says. When the firm tested their concept on focus groups, she says, drivers showed a marked change.

This method has left street users in harm's way for a century. Instead of depending on educating fallible drivers, imagine educating engineers to design a transportation system with attention to the law of conservation of momentum** — a system that separates two-ton machines in motion from people on the ground where they rightfully belong, maybe something like this:

A roller coaster above people at Gröna Lund in Stockholm

Imagine a city where people on the ground can safely coexist with machines moving above. Pedestrians and bicyclists will thrive and travelers will speed non-stop to their destinations twice as fast as cars, buses and street cars inching their way from stoplight to stoplight.

* See Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City (Inside Technology) by Peter D. Norton
"Before the advent of the automobile, users of city streets were diverse and included children at play and pedestrians at large. By 1930, most streets were primarily a motor thoroughfares where children did not belong and where pedestrians were condemned as "jaywalkers." In Fighting Traffic, Peter Norton argues that to accommodate automobiles, the American city required not only a physical change but also a social one: before the city could be reconstructed for the sake of motorists, its streets had to be socially reconstructed as places where motorists belonged. It was not an evolution, he writes, but a bloody and sometimes violent revolution. Norton describes how street users struggled to define and redefine what streets were for. He examines developments in the crucial transitional years from the 1910s to the 1930s, uncovering a broad anti-automobile campaign that reviled motorists as "road hogs" or "speed demons" and cars as "juggernauts" or "death cars." He considers the perspectives of all users--pedestrians, police (who had to become "traffic cops"), street railways, downtown businesses, traffic engineers (who often saw cars as the problem, not the solution), and automobile promoters. He finds that pedestrians and parents campaigned in moral terms, fighting for "justice." Cities and downtown businesses tried to regulate traffic in the name of "efficiency." Automotive interest groups, meanwhile, legitimized their claim to the streets by invoking "freedom" -- a rhetorical stance of particular power in the United States. Fighting Traffic offers a new look at both the origins of the automotive city in America and how social groups shape technological change."
** The amount of momentum object 1 gains from a collision is the same as the amount of momentum object 2 loses. The total momentum remains the same.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Is solar energy intermittent?

Once Bucky Fuller told a story about being at MIT, talking to some of the brightest people in the world. There he asked to see hands: would anyone deny that the sun rises every morning? Of course there were no hands. Then he pointed out that they were all wrong — we have known for centuries, if not millennia, that the earth spins; the sun is constant. In the morning as the Earth revolves the sun into seeability, we experience sunsight.

The other day I chanced upon a TED Talk by Bill Gates, Innovating to zero (zero carbon, that is). When he got around to renewables, he said "these are intermittent sources."

Genius in a box!
Life emerged from the deep because the Earth spins on its axis, generating thermodynamic processes. Substances pulsing between hot and cold eventually captured the flux and complexified, surfing at the margins as it were. A planet with one side always facing its sun is a dead planet.

We can be thankful that the sun gives us respite every night, time to cool off and reconsider the wisdom of Bill Gates.

I am more interested in hearing what engineers have to say about all this. Good engineering starts with a clear understanding of the constraints. I for one am ecstatic that our Sun's energy is constant and the Earth spins. I can design accordingly.

Beware of programmers carrying screwdrivers. If trees can make it through the night without burning fossil fuels, so can we.

Immediate not Gradual Liberation from Fossil Fuels

In 1824 Elizabeth Heyrick published a pamphlet in England arguing for "Immediate, not Gradual Abolition." Respecting her genius, in like fashion I propose Immediate, not Gradual Liberation from Fossil Fuels.

In 1824 the cry went out — Oh, we must be practical and do it gradually. Let's simply stop kidnapping and shipping slaves from Africa to the West Indies (the dirtiest side of the business). But Elizabeth Heyrick persevered, others joined her cause and the transformation was made rapidly and peacefully

What can be gradual about a leap across the divide?

In the USA it wasn't so easy. Instead of switching to machines delivering by then kilowatts of power tirelessly, as was the case in the northern states, southern masters continued to use slaves producing 100-200 watts of power. A war ensued, entangling masters, slaves and soldiers in abject suffering, with repercussions persisting to this very day.

In like fashion the quest for fossil fuels has already led to untold suffering, entangling millions of people in violent oil wars, since World War I. In World War II, Hitler invaded Russia to conquer the Caspian Sea: "Unless we get Baku oil, the war is lost." And oil wars persist without respite.  

The burning of fossil fuels is transforming the atmosphere and the oceans. The earth's atmosphere and oceans have changed before; the earth will survive. But will humans? Will we move directly now to the age of electricity? Will we continue to fight over oil? Will humanity's old friend Fire transform the atmosphere until we won't even be able to breathe? 

And I can hear the cry going out — Oh, we must be practical. We must preserve our way of life. Some climate change activists will say we must avoid burning coal (the dirtiest side of the business) but burning natural gas is sorta okay. 

But is that so? Who has sufficient understanding to unequivocally guarantee that humans can continue to test Mother Nature's limits without consequences?

If we follow the example of Elizabeth Heyrick's profound courage, there are only two possible futures for humanity and fossil fuels — get off or die off.

With quiet, clean, safe, low maintenance, economical renewable energy technology reaching maturity in the marketplace, it's an easy choice to make.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Spartan Superway 4

Building on the achievements of San José State students over the past three years, forty San José State Mechanical Engineering students have just joined the Spartan Superway project, together with several more including several grad students working in Solar Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, and Software Engineering. A new blog has been created to showcase their progress over the course of the 2015-2016 academic year. You can check it out at

The new students have a solid foundation of work upon which to build. In addition to the previous three years of effort, this past summer nineteen engineering students from Brazil, South Korea, Sweden and France joined a handful of California students from San Jose State, Carnegie Mellon and UC Davis to continue developing the Spartan Superway.

Students and mentors from 5 countries in front of their flags
at the Spartan Superway Design Center
just a couple blocks from San José State
You can check out the earlier student work at the INIST Library.

Welcome to the new members of Spartan Superway 4!